Joe Hill must have been more stageworthy than he seems in Thomas Babe's "Salt Lake City Skyline," at the Odyssey.
The legendary labor organizer and songwriter was executed by a Utah firing squad in 1915, convicted of the murder of a Salt Lake City grocer and his son. The evidence was flimsy--primarily consisting of an unexplained gunshot wound to Hill on the same night as the murder.
Hill refused to say what happened to him that night. According to Babe's account, a jealous husband found Hill in bed with his high-toned wife and fired away.
So far, so interesting. But we don't see the husband or the incident. The play is set almost completely inside the courtroom, structured around Hill's trial in the first act, and his sentencing and execution in the second act.
In between the trial scenes, we see Hill talking with the lady in question and her son--a devoted Hill groupie. Not much is done, in the script or with Bob Heller's lights or any other way, to indicate where these conversations take place--in the imagination, the courtroom (which would seem impossible), the prison, wherever. These scenes fit awkwardly into the rest of the play.
The lady offers to testify on Hill's behalf, but Hill refuses. He'd rather be a gentleman and a martyr. One of his old cohorts from the Wobblies visits him and points out the value of martyrdom. Hill has a few doubts, but he doesn't let them come between him and the firing squad.
"Salt Lake" isn't supposed to be realistic, but neither does it take off into engaging fantasy. At first, the action is interrupted by jaunty choruses of labor ditties, sung and semi-danced by everyone on stage--including judge, jury, prosecutor, as well as Hill. But this technique is used less and less--until finally we wonder what was the point of doing it at all.
You could say the same for the entire play. Despite a glory-hallelujah ending, this is not an inspirational ode to Hill and his cause. A few slides at the beginning depict turn-of-the-century poverty, and later Hill (acting as his own attorney) effectively questions a mine manager about his exploitation of the workers, but otherwise the social context is given short shrift. For a play that's named after a city, it's odd that we don't get any feeling of place, or of why Hill was in Salt Lake City in the first place.
Maybe this is supposed to be a psychological study? Yet, details about Hill's past are sparse. The trial itself would be much more urgent if we could break out of the courtroom to scenes from Hill's life--as an immigrant, as a worker, as an agitator, even as a clandestine lover.
As Hill, John Diehl wears a little grin that comes off as smug more than charming. There are occasional sexual sparks between him and Callan White, as his mysterious lover. F. William Parker delivers a few wry moments as the terminally ill judge. J. Michael Alexander's musical direction adds mild flavoring.
Directed by Frank Condon, "Salt Lake City Skyline" is more reminiscent of his earlier Odyssey stagings--historical inquisitions like "Chicago Conspiracy Trial" and "McCarthy" than of the previous work of playwright Thomas Babe ("Demon Wine," "Fathers and Sons," "A Prayer for My Daughter"). But it doesn't have the edge of most of Condon's productions.
At 2055 S. Sepulveda Blvd., Wednesdays through Fridays at 8 p.m., Saturdays at 9:30 p.m., most Sundays at 7:30 p.m., with 2 p.m. matinees instead of evening performances on June 10 and 24, indefinitely. $15.50-$19.50; (213) 477-2055.